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Women in the care trap


Teaching yes, professorship no - for many women, an academic career demands major sacrifices.

Women in the care trap© diego cervo - iStockphoto.com"Many women feel that waiting for a professorship means they run a particularly high risk of missing the opportunity to settle down with a partner and start a family"
Opportunities for women at universities are better than ever. For several decades, women have been succeeding in converting outstanding degree results into academic careers. And there is still plenty of untapped potential for advancement. In the humanities and social sciences, organisational cultures of a really feminine nature have developed. Gradually, women have conquered university hierarchies and softened up male domains. Support programmes and networks have opened up universities for women. As new generations replace the old, discriminatory prejudices have largely disappeared.

Nonetheless, many academically highly qualified women do not aspire to an academic career and leave the university despite being advised by their supervisors to move up to the next stage. Why is this? Career orientation is a self-evident element of the life plan of academically educated women today, even if they are more hesitant to step onto the career ladder than their male counterparts. Unlike many pioneering women who have conquered male domains and embraced an ascetic lifestyle, women today also want a partner and family. However, there are still gaps in the infrastructure for the care of children and elderly family members. Asymmetric division of partners' household and family chores, as well as female self-image, make it difficult for women in Germany to decide to advance their university careers, a choice which entails a long haul associated with many risks. "Old-style" universities used to be able to attract women through the charm of their working environment. They offered opportunities for independent working, creative freedom and the possibility of individual time management which is so important for women with additional family responsibilities.

That's a thing of the past now because, notwithstanding their individual differences, a paradigm shift in the organisational culture can be seen at all universities. Trust in the intrinsic motivation of the university staff has been replaced by extrinsically prescribed, bureaucratically based incentives of reward and "punishment" which place strong pressure on students and teaching staff alike to adapt. For those who want to combine an individual lifestyle with the requirements of an academic career, there is now much less room for manoeuvre. Since Bologna, university teaching has moved in the direction of narrower courses, standardised teaching plans and rigid performance requirements. Many female students are afraid of not getting their degree. If they stay at the university, the difficulties continue. In the humanities and social sciences, a particularly large number of women are assigned to non-professorial positions with teaching tasks for basic studies. Because of the control functions that are required of them in order to impose discipline, they become the object of the students' anger and frustration. The students' power to complain to deans of studies and submit unfavourable assessments makes female lecturers insecure about the renewal of their contracts. And these are the same women who are on hand as contact persons to help students with problems.

Their male colleagues, on the other hand, have often long since retreated from the student front line to concentrate on research. In the course of restructuring the universities after Bologna, many organisational, administrative and planning functions have been created, without establishing a sensible division of the workload and responsibilities. Academic staff - primarily women, I hasten to add - are taking on additional tasks to an unprecedented extent. This deprives them of time to increase their specialist knowledge of their subject and progress with their publications. They are often the guardians of a local institutional memory that threatens to be lost as new generations replace the old, and which male academics, who have structured their career by moving from institution to institution, fail to value. Nor does female staff's commitment to establishing order locally in the confusing muddle of regulations help them jump the next university hurdle. Anyone who has not managed to obtain a permanent position in the six years before their doctorate or the next six years after is mercilessly cast out of the system. The new generation of female academics therefore see themselves as having no option but to concentrate intensively on their careers during the very phase of their lives when it is usual in Germany to start families. This practically rules out planning a family. There is not enough time or security.

Many women feel that waiting for a professorship means they run a particularly high risk of missing the opportunity to settle down with a partner and start a family. This is why they tend to leave when they are still at non-professorial level and do not penetrate the "glass ceiling" to a professorship. Those women who nonetheless aspire to a professorship find themselves confronted with a long informal list of criteria. These include mobility, raising research funding, stays in foreign universities, organisation of symposia and conferences, length of publication lists, cooperation in networks and good teaching evaluations. This professionalisation of academic careers is very demanding when you also need to care for a family. The humanities and social sciences have not even especially benefited from this development. The new type of academic shaped by this approach is more like an academic manager with little loyalty to traditions and institutions. And the thing they know how to manage best of all is their own career.

Even on finally obtaining that first professorship, neither the benefits in terms of reputation nor the pay give particular cause for satisfaction. Adequate conditions for research and teaching can by no means be taken for granted and one must first create them by working through the next service catalogue. It never stops! And not only that, but in the new type of partially decentralised university, the availability of resources is becoming an ever more important issue and forcing female academics - in order to safeguard their research prospects - to engage in power struggles for prominent academic policy-making positions in a male-dominated domain. Against this backdrop, the liberty for independent research is ultimately consigned to the realm of dreams.

From DIE ZEIT 24.02.2011